In the previous part of this series, we looked at the first of three stages of education for human freedom, and saw how it is built on natural inclinations given to us by God and on the discipline of obedience. Now, we shall consider the second stage, where we progressively interiorize what has been learned in stage one. Here, personal initiative comes to the fore and virtues begin to be formed. We develop a consistency of personal intention to act in accord with excellence.
Love for virtue
In stage one, we start down the road to freedom, aided by fear of punishment for doing wrong and by desire to get a reward for doing what is right. In this second stage, those motivations become far less significant and are replaced by love of virtue.
Virtue is far more than a habit, although good habits certainly facilitate virtuous living. Just to develop a good habit, however, just to be able to do something over and over, does not imply that one has forged a virtue. A virtue is the personal capacity for consistently acting in charity and truth, including the capacity for making good decisions and performing actions we once thought were impossible.
Virtue perfects our intention to be good and to do what is good in all circumstances. It brings forth an inner disposition of person that allows one to persevere in good actions, even in the face of obstacles from without and within: i.e. from moral inertia caused by bad habits of the past and by the opposition of other persons.
Virtue helps us to be true to our commitments, to make progress in holiness, and to cooperate each day with the grace of the Holy Spirit. A kind of spiritual spontaneity toward good develops within us through the practice of virtue.
The Beatitudes in practice
While the first stage of educating for freedom is especially aided by the Ten Commandments, stage two draws wisdom from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In other words, as we progress along the road to greater freedom, we are able to move beyond external compliance with God’s law (which was needed in the beginning to break free from bad habits and slavery to sin) to qualities of the heart such as Jesus describes in the Beatitudes.
This second stage is certainly not a rejection of the freedom attained by obedience to the commandments; rather, it builds in continuity on that foundation. At the same time, there is a profound difference in the quality of human freedom that the second stage of education brings about. It could be compared to the difference between what an obedient child of nine can freely do and what a virtuous adult can achieve with inner spontaneity and joy. Obedience continues to be important while virtue grows ever stronger in the heart.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church alludes to this stage when it describes virtue (#1803) as follows, “A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself… he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.”
Thinking and acting in Excellence
Virtue builds integrity of life and strength of character. It helps us to live as St. Paul exhorts us to do (Phil 4:8-9), “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen.”
Virtue, with the aid of grace, enables us to think about whatever is excellent, and then to move beyond the thought to freely acting for excellence. With the help of the Holy Spirit and ongoing efforts of our own, we not only can do good, but we can become good. In this way, virtue helps us to escape any tendency toward narrow legalism or moral minimalism which could never transform the heart to the extent that God desires.
The second stage of education for freedom has been compared to the “illuminative way” of the mystics, just as stage one has been compared to the “purgative way.” The theological and cardinal virtues enable us to see our self, the Church and the world in true light. They allow us, then, more easily to follow the impulses of the Holy Spirit and to live in love as instructed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.
Next time, we shall continue this consideration of human freedom, moving on to consider the third and last stage of education in freedom: the stage of maturity in charity.